By Christian Eedes, 21 January 2013
Over the weekend such natural wines as Domaine le Briseau Patapon Coteaux du Loir 2009. From the Pineau d’Aunis variety, it was rustic, dirty even, but wonderfully so. Craig Hawkins of Lammershoek in the Swartland in South Africa and his Testalonga El Bandito 2009, Testalonga El Bandito Cortex 2011 and Cellar Foot Harslevelu 2010 also featured.
So what exactly is natural wine? It’s a highly controversial term but broadly equates to “nothing added, nothing taken away”. This entails producers following organic or biodynamic viticultural practices, whether certified or not, while in the cellar additives are restricted – no cultured yeasts and absolutely minimal amounts of sulphur allowed.
Proponents of natural wine tend towards anarchy in the true sense and there’s a deliberate resistance to any regulation. Just how much of a political agenda is there behind the movement? It most definitely can be seen as a reaction to conventional wine, which natural wine advocates argue is overly commercial and joyless. More specifically, a large part of wine’s appeal is due to its diversity but it has become more and more homogenised due to the use of technology – natural wine seeks to ensure that wine retains its sense of place.
What natural wine represents is a counter-point to wines made with a large degree of technological intervention, including processes like yeasting, acidification or chapitalisation, reverse osmosis or micro-oxygenation. While not exclusive to natural wine movement, the increasing shift away from barrique as a vessel for fermentation and maturation towards large-format, old-wood vats, concrete and amphorae is very much in line with its values. It might even be said that natural wine proponents have introduced another colour of wine – no longer only red, white and rosé but orange (on account of the oxidation which inevitably occurs).
Seemingly lots to like about natural wine but it’s currently generating some of the most heated debates in wine circles. First and foremost, natural wines often have very unusual flavour profiles – because of the way they are made they are prone to flaws and faults such as oxidation and the effects of spoilage yeast Brettanomyces. The debate then becomes when are these characteristics adding interest to a wine and when are they simply dominating the wine detracting from basic quality and over-riding any sense of place. Natural wine advocates will typically argue that to fixate on flaws and faults is to be trapped in a paradigm where wines are either “correct” or “incorrect”.
More generally, natural wine receives criticism for being either too vague or too idealistic. Too vague in the sense that without formal definition, it cannot be properly policed allowing producers who aren’t true to the cause to claim natural wine credentials. Equally, producers certified organic are worried that ‘natural’ wines might be confused with ‘organic’ wines and might harm their improving reputation, as organic wine producers have been driving up standards for over 20 years whereas natural wines have only recently come to prominence.
The argument that natural wine is too idealistic simply comes stems from the observation that literally speaking there can be no ‘natural wine’ because wine doesn’t exist in nature. Without human input, fermented grape juice tends to vinegar.
Perhaps not everything about natural wine adds up but ask yourself this: why are food, but not wine, producers compelled to supply ingredient labelling? The level of additives in most wines is probably higher than it need be and if natural wine ends up forcing producers to use a lighter hand in this regard, so much the better.